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Love at first try
Until Ashley Rolsma found rugby she was seriously considering playing soccer in college.
Rolsma, a senior at Kentwood, was persuaded to attend a touch game with the Kent Crusaders Rugby club by Cassidy Meyers, who graduated in June and is now playing rugby at American International College.
“She kept bugging me about it,” Rolsma said. “She said if I went to one practice, she’d stop bugging me about it. So, I went and I fell in love with it.”
That was in December 2012. At the time she was playing club basketball and club soccer in addition to playing hoops for the Conquerors.
“Somehow I managed to do all that and school,” Rolsma said. “There were some days I did not get that much sleep.”
She was fortunate, however, that rugby, soccer and basketball games did not overlap too much on weekends. It all worked out.
Rolsma started playing basketball in elementary school. Last season Kentwood made a deep run in the playoffs, getting to the 4A state tournament and played at the Tacoma Dome, with the season bleeding into the start of practices for rugby.
“Basketball has been in my life for a while,” she said. “I’ve played with these girls I’m finishing up my senior year with since middle school.”
She went to touch games, but, Rolsma said she wasn’t able to get to practice until after basketball season ended and missed playing in the first two games. She explained to Rex Norris, who coaches the U19 girls team for Kent Crusaders and teaches AP Psychology at Kentwood, that she was committed to basketball and she said he understood.
“I came on late to the scene,” Rolsma said. “The first couple weeks is actually getting to know the sport. There were actually quite a few new girls last year. But, I picked it up pretty quick.”
And there was something about the atmosphere of the Crusaders girls rugby team that appealed to her.
“The team aspect of it, it’s really a family, no cliques,” Rolsma said. “I know every one of those girls works their butts off at practice. And the coaching staff is phenomenal.”
Even though she missed the beginning of practices and the season, Rolsma said, the team made her feel welcome. It was a vastly different experience than club soccer, she said, which was one of the reasons she was willing to consider walking away from that sport after going on several unofficial visits to schools to look at soccer teams.
“Once I joined rugby, I was like, ‘I will quit soccer,’” Rolsma said. “And I hadn’t even played a game. My parents were pretty freaked out, but, I think they know I made the right decision, especially after the journey it’s taken me on.”
That experience included making it to the championship game of the National Invitational Tournament in May. Rolsma said winning the semifinal game was a huge moment not just for her, but for the Crusaders, not to mention it was so close the official had to double check the score when it was over to make sure she knew which team won.
“We get a team … to get to the national championship game, a team we’d never beaten before,” Rolsma said. “When they posted it on Facebook, all of the alumni were really happy about it. That was cool to see they still cared. And I think that was the best feeling I ever had after a game. It was like nothing else.”
Rugby has helped her be a better athlete in her other sports.
“It’s actually given me a bit more confidence in myself,” Rolsma said. “It’s helped me gain more confidence in my abilities, especially in a leadership role.”
She played soccer for Kentwood this fall. Conquerors coach Aaron Radford had nothing but praise for Rolsma in an email interview.
“She works very hard,” Radford wrote. “She puts in her best effort each day. She isn’t a vocal person, but her work ethic says enough. She is very strong and physical, plus her speed is just enough to get the job done.”
Radford said that while he can’t draw a direct connection between rugby and soccer for Rolsma, he did see good things from her this season.
“She has progressively gotten stronger and more confident with the her soccer game,” Radford wrote. “Overall she is a great part of the team — any team. She rises to the occasion and faces every challenge with grit and determination. That is exactly what I would want from a defender on my soccer team.”
While Rolsma is excited about the next phase of her life as a student-athlete, she is still focused on the next rugby season and basketball this year.
She hopes the Conquerors basketball team will get back to the state tournament this year with the amount of experience and talent returning.
“I’m hoping to go really far this year,” she said. “It’s our last year playing together and my last year playing this sport. We’re fortunate to have that (experience) and there’s a lot of new players, too, that are nice to have. The fact that we (the seniors) have played together so long, we’re used to each other. It’s nice because we have a really good connection out there on the court.”
As for the Crusaders girls rugby team, she hopes they get back to the national tournament again in the spring.
“I just hope for a good successful season,” Rolsma said. “That I can walk away knowing I did my all.”
And Rolsma is finalizing her plans for where rugby will take her after high school. This past year since that first touch game with the Crusaders has been something of a whirlwind.
“It was so fast,” she said. “I was just excited to win state. And then to go to nationals. And to get a call from a coach that I made the All American team.”
Recently she visited three different schools, official visits as a student-athlete, to explore her options for college rugby. Her dad asked her at one point if she was sure she wanted to play in college and she assured him she was positive.
“I don’t want to play two years and have it be done,” Rolsma said.